Hilma af Klint (*October 26, 1862, at Castle Karlberg in Solna, near Stockholm, Sweden; † October 21, 1944, in Djursholm, Sweden) attended the Tekniska Skolan (Technical school) in Stockholm in 1880, and took classes in portrait painting taught by Kerstin Cardon. From 1882 to 1887 she studied at the Königliche Akademie der Schönen Künste (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) and graduated with top grades. From the late 1880s on she worked in a studio of her own, which was provided to her and two other female artists by the art academy. In 1896 she and four friends founded a spiritualist group called The Five, and together they held séances. Around the turn of the century she was employed at a veterinary school, doing drawings. In 1908 she met Rudolf Steiner, who later founded anthroposophy. In 1920 she joined the Theosophical Society and traveled for the first time, to Dornach in Switzerland, where she met Steiner once again. Between 1921 and 1930 she spent increasingly longer periods of time in Dornach, engaged in an intensive study of anthroposophy, and attended Steiner’s lectures.

Painting the Invisible

»It is not the visible that must be painted, but what has hitherto been considered invisible, namely, what the clairvoyant painter sees.« (Umberto Boccioni)

When studying abstract art, we first meet with artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kasimir Malevich. They are considered major figures—Kandinsky as the founder of the new style that developed at the start of the 20th century in Russia and Europe. But what place does the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint occupy? She began creating abstract works of art in 1906, several years before Kandinsky’s first abstracts. Despite her important contribution to the history of abstract art, af Klint’s oeuvre, consisting of more than 1000 paintings, water colors, and sketches, is only known in very small art circles.

Hilma af Klint made a radical break in her work at a very early point: as a young teen the artist began moving in spiritualist circles and was a medium in séances. She began practicing écriture automatique in 1896 and produced “automatic drawings.” Finally, in 1906, after a decade of creating many works in her role as a medium, she developed her own abstract visual vocabulary. Just prior to that, she had agreed to take on Amaliel’s commission and, at the behest of this “high master,” she produced paintings of a supernatural, non-physical reality.

Although the artist, who was extremely gifted in both drawing and painting, began with landscapes, portraits, and botanical studies in watercolors, using a mainly naturalistic style, she now commenced work on an extensive cycle, The Temple Paintings (1906–1915), consisting of a total of 193 mainly abstract works of art. Between 1906 and 1908 af Klint initially produced all of these paintings—some of which were monumental in size—in accordance with the instructions of a higher being. But between 1912 and 1915 she began allowing herself the freedom to create her own work, although she continued to think of herself as a medium. The cycle of works is based on af Klint’s fundamental assumption that there is a spiritual dimension to our existence. She strove to depict invisible links—between man and cosmos, for instance, or microcosm and macrocosm, or male and female. In this way she hoped to achieve a deeper understanding of the world and of human existence.
The organic forms of her early years were increasingly replaced by geometrical abstractions; after turning to anthroposophy, she began creating watercolors under its influence in the 1920s, using free-flowing colors without contours.

Influenced by the spiritual and occult movements of her time, by spiritualism, theosophy, and later, anthroposophy, Hilma af Klint created works of art that are fundamentally different from the ones she produced right after graduating from the art academy. Some of her botanical studies are impressive examples of her precise naturalism, on one hand, and of her radical abstraction, on the other. For instance, a watercolor of violets (1919) shows the plants not only in their natural forms, but also projected onto an astral plane.

Considering her remarkable oeuvre, af Klint is now being revealed as a pioneering abstract artist. She mainly ascribed her work—restrictive, critical voices add—to “higher powers,” and her abstracts did not develop out of pure color and form into a visual world of their own. Indisputably, though, af Klint’s works have not, until now, occupied the place of importance they deserve in art history. The insufficient reception of her work can be explained by the artist’s own standards. During her lifetime she only allowed exhibitions of her figurative works, not her abstract paintings. In her will she added that this portion of her oeuvre could not be made public until twenty years after her death. She left her artistic estate in the hands of her nephew, Erik af Klint, who was also charged with making sure that her entire body of work would not be split up or sold at auction. It was not until recently—1986/87, more than forty years after the artist’s death—that a selection of her paintings and works on paper were shown alongside works by other abstract artists in an exhibition in Los Angeles, Chicago, and The Hague. Her work immediately attracted a great deal of attention. A current exhibition of af Klint’s entire oeuvre, traveling from Stockholm to Berlin to Málaga, now makes us remember an outstanding artist who abandoned the depiction of the visible world very early in her career.

Photo: Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan 5, around 1895, Hilma af Klint Archive, detail

May 13, 2013 Stefanie Gommel

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